I consider Avatar to be a masterpiece of action sci-fi film making, and though it has its share of detractors it’s becoming increasingly clear that it has raised the bar very, very high. Take John Carter, for instance, which shares many elements in common with Avatar yet fails every which way to engage its audience. Admittedly, part of the problem is it’s based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Princess of Mars, which Hollywood directors have been gleefully pilfering from for the past century. It can’t shake the inescapable feeling we’ve been here, done this many times before.
John Carter is a veteran of the American civil war who gets inadvertently telegrammed to Mars when he stumbles into a cavern portal. Due to the weaker gravity on Mars he soon finds he can jump like Superman in a sequence that is laughable for the wrong reasons and mirrors Peter Parker honing his newfound abilities as Spider-man. John then encounters a group of alien Indian-stand-ins with two sets of arms. Though the aliens aren’t totally convincing next to their human prisoner, everything from the set details to the scenery are very well done (a martian dog creature being a particular favorite). The budget seems to have been well spent aside from the human costumes and extras, which look like rejects from Xena Warrior Princess. Yes, there are humans on Mars and they look pretty much like we do except they have red tattoos.
Speaking of Xena, when the princess of Mars appears for the first time she will likely remind viewers of the cheesy performances seen in self-important fantasy flicks from the ’70s and ’80s. It doesn’t help that there’s a forced love-at-first-sight meeting with Carter. Even though the leads in Avatar were animated, their love story was much more believable and organic. Its failure to make us really care plagues the film elsewhere. John Carter seems invincible, which drains the many action sequences of any sense of peril or excitement. As a cavalry soldier he would be more accustomed to shooting a gun, but that doesn’t stop him from sword-fighting with dozens of enemies at a time while barely breaking a sweat. Later we’re treated to a colosseum battle we’ve seen many times before, and while this one is better than the one in Attack of the Clones, it’s nowhere near as thrilling as anything from Gladiator because we’ve seen that John can take a savage beating and keep on ticking.
Perhaps most damning of all, the film doesn’t have anything important to say. The best thing about science fiction stories is their way of distancing themselves from any specific time and place in order to get to the heart of a matter. In this case, the civil war vet who refuses to fight in the Indian wars should have something profound to say about inter-racial conflicts on Mars. One of the Martian factions is totally careless about the planet’s dwindling resources, but even that isn’t properly communicated. Mars is a nearly desolate planet, so you’d think John would have something important to say about saving what little is left. There is no life-affirming message or underlying meaning to it all. Even the film’s antagonist isn’t necessarily evil; he’s being manipulated by a set of ancient, all-powerful shape-shifters who absolve him of any guilt.
John Carter is certainly better than the Star Wars prequels and has plenty of cool things going on, but I didn’t feel emotionally involved, which we have come to expect from Pixar alumni. Especially from Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed my favorite Pixar film, Finding Nemo. I respect the fact that he has been obsessed with Burroughs’ fiction his entire life, but the timing on this one feels too late. As a final gripe I saw it in 2D, because in my opinion the fake retrofitted 3D isn’t worth paying the extra ticket price. Is it really cheaper to retrofit 3D, a complex and time-consuming process that yields middling results, than to just shoot it that way to begin with? It boggles the mind. Bring on Prometheus.
|Amazon USA||Amazon Canada||Amazon UK|